In our last Saturday Is for Scholars post, we looked at some advice from Dr. Daniel Treier, who supervisors students with me in the Ph.D. program at Wheaton College. That post focused on discerning whether you should consider a Ph.D. program (see Should I Apply for a Doctoral Program?). In other words, trying to figure out whether you’re really the kind of person who should be thinking about doctoral work. Today’s post assumes you have answered that question affirmatively and are ready to think about when you should move forward with an application at which schools.
This will almost certainly look different for every prospective student. When I began the process, I had a pretty definite idea of what I wanted my dissertation to focus on and the areas of specialization my ideal supervisor would need to have for that project (theological anthropology, Christology, and philosophy of mind). That helped me narrow things down considerably as I could just sift through the various programs looking for doctoral faculty with strengths in those areas.
Others I’ve known have approached things somewhat differently, focusing on programs with the best overall reputation or programs with strong reputations in the general area they want to study (e.g. pauline theology, hermeneutics, patristic theology). For some students, geographical location is important, others pay more attention to scholarships and stipends (which is something I’m sure everyone focuses on, but it’s a more important factor for some than others).
So there’s a lot to consider. But here are the four pieces of advice that Dr. Treier offers for people who have decided that they are probably cut out for Ph.D. program, but still need to figure out when and where to apply.
4 Keys to Discerning When & Where to Apply
1. Pursue Multiple Options
This is especially true if you are applying to top-tier programs, which frequently face a range of considerations beyond test scores and references. Diversity concerns, balanced supervisor loads, upcoming sabbaticals, etc., affect admission decisions. So don’t apply at just one or two places, unless you have your heart set on something in particular and you’re willing to wait or unwilling to settle for alternatives.
Just to add one more quick thought to Dr. Treier’s advice. If you’re early in the process, you may still be trying to figure out which schools even have PhD programs. If so, check out the Association of Theological Schools webpage. ATS accredits theological schools in America and Canada, so their list of doctoral programs is pretty thorough.For UK schools, try looking at the list of schools ranked in the Research Assessment Exercise (the official evaluation of UK programs) or rankings like top Theology & Religious Studies programs. Personally I’m not inclined to put a lot of stock in the actual rankings, but they’ll help you see what programs are out there so you can expand your search accordingly.
2. Prioritize your potential supervisor(s) when you can
While a school’s reputation is important, you are going to apprentice yourself to one or more key people for several years (although in some American programs you don’t have much influence over whom you can get as a supervisor, you still want to consider potential supervisors as one of the factors in the decision). At minimum they need to be willing to supervise someone with your theological commitments and intellectual interests. At maximum they should be people you would be delighted to imitate in teaching and scholarship…and even life. Ideally the person’s reputation would make their reference letters useful in the network within which you want a job. Moreover, visit and/or ask current students how approachable and available they are. Is this a person who would make you wait six months for feedback on a dissertation chapter? who would refuse to read your work or meet with you during a sabbatical? Etc. These are real-world and even typical scenarios.
3. Contact one or more potential supervisors at each school
Once you have matched a set of schools to your interests and aptitude. They can steer you in helpful directions for the application process. You might also learn how approachable and available they are.
To expand on Dr. Treier’s advice a bit, I often talk with students who are hesitant to contact potential supervisors because they don’t want to be a bother or a burden. I felt that way too, so I completely understand. But you need to keep in mind a few things. First, Dr. Treier is right that most doctoral supervisors are “approachable and available.” Most of them really do enjoy helping students figure out what they want to research and which program is the best fit for them. So don’t skip this step just because you’re intimidated by the prospect of reaching out to people you don’t know. That’s a normal and expected part of this process. Second, you really want to do this because it helps you assess potential supervisors. Not only will you come to understand their research interests better, but you’ll get a better feel for what kind of person they are (i.e. is this someone you want to spend several years working alongside?) and how good they are at responding to questions (e.g. did they take all summer to respond to that super important email you sent?). Remember, as a prospective student, you are checking them out as much as they are checking you out. And it’s difficult for you to do that unless you reach out and contact them.
4. Expect no magic formula for knowing when to apply.
Some students need a year or two off, to recharge batteries and avoid burnout, or to experience vocational ministry, etc. Other students know where they’re going, find school energizing, and get enough breaks already, so they should proceed full steam ahead. Do not be naive about how much study and further preparation you’ll achieve in a year or two off; academic accountability structures exist partly because of how ineffective we are on our own. Unless you simply have to improve or gain languages or test scores, for example, and can realistically expect to accomplish that work by yourself, then assume that years off are years academically lost. Do not be naive enough to believe that most successful applicants ever feel academically ready. You can always look around and find someone else smarter or better prepared, because we tend to focus these comparisons on others’ strengths and our own weaknesses.